Garden “Easter Eggs” and Mystery Plants
by Gerald Taaffe

One of the great advantages of rock gardening is that there are always delicious surprises, particularly in spring, but also at other times of the year. Seedlings can lie doggo for several years and are just about forgotten before bursting into flower. Tiny shrublets can call for attention by a surprisingly brilliant flare of autumn colour, and small herbaceous plants by suddenly spreading out to make a strong impact. Plants can turn up in unexpected places. The first-time bloom of other rock garden plants can be even more beautiful than expected.

These happy surprises are a sort of gardener’s “Easter eggs.” We don’t hide them or hunt for them, as for literal Easter eggs, but they wouldn’t happen if we hadn’t sown seed or tried out as many different kinds of plants as possible. Even the mystery plant that popped up in my sand bed in early fall must have a logical explanation. It turned up near a winter-killed South African helichrysum, showing first as a neat little tuft of arching stems clothed with very finely dissected leaves. Eventually a single 15cm bare stem rose from the centre, bearing a bud that in time opened into a tiny anemone-like single flower of pure pink. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’d guess that it came in as a seed that had blown into a pot at my favourite West Coast nursery.

Ruth and I found the first of this year’s “Easter eggs” in early April, on returning from a little over a week in Europe. When we’d left, on March 31st, the garden had been covered by a foot or so of the white stuff. Now all the snow was gone. There were the usual very welcome spring discoveries – little dots of colour on the emerging flower buds of tight mats of Kabschia saxifrages and the fresh green tufts and rosettes of all sorts of other triumphantly surviving rock garden plants. There were also two unexpected and utterly wonderful surprises, plants that I’d put in the sand bed a year or two ago and then completely forgotten.

The first was an exceptionally fine form of the loveliest of the pasqueflowers, Pulsatilla vernalis. A half -dozen flower buds covered with golden-bronze fuzz were beginning to open into flowers that Reginald Farrer (in The English Rock Garden) has compared to “some mystic water-lily.” The flowers were bigger than I remember from other specimens and were a pure light pink rather than the usual white, as beautiful a rock garden plant as I have ever seen.

A query to the rock gardeners’ electronic site, Alpine-L, found no one else with experience of a pink form of the species, but any doubts about its identity were cleared up by image 417 on the Czech gardener Josef Hlasek’s website. It shows a stunning clear pink-flowered form of this prized species that looks exactly like the one that Ruth and I found in our garden this spring.

The second homecoming find was the appearance of flower buds on our all-but-forgotten Clematis tenuifolia, which Claude A. Barr, in his masterpiece, Jewels of the Plains, has rightly called “the prize rock garden clematis of the west, perhaps of the world.” Over the next few weeks, the six flower stems, then just barely visible, grew to their full height of 20cm., each topped with a single large, parachute-like nodding flower of glowing mauve.

(This enchanting dwarf is often considered a variety of C. columbiana, the weakly climbing type-species of which I loved and left behind in my previous garden, where it continues to thread through a weeping hemlock and, in season, gladden the hearts of passers-by with a mysterious-looking display of flowers over its evergreen host. The flowering of the dwarf variety helps compensate for the fact that, since moving, despite several tries, I haven’t been able to keep seedlings of this species alive past the first summer.)

Mysterious Moves, Orphaned Seedlings

Dicentra peregrina was the choicest of a few plants that moved mysteriously during the summer and, for that matter, was the hands down most welcome plant in the garden for the few weeks that it was in bloom. I’d put it in the year before, not for the first time, in the fastest draining part of the fastest draining trough, where it survived for a few weeks before disappearing. This spring, a small tuft of silvery, finely cut leaves emerged in a different part of the trough, arousing hopes, which were fulfilled when there subsequently appeared one and then another stem topped by pink bleeding hearts. Ruth and I felt a glow of joy, followed quickly by tremulous hope for a repeat show next summer. As of writing time, in mid-November, all seemed to be going well – but this is about the fifth time that I’ve tried this difficult and very beautiful native of the cool mountains of Japan.

The pretty little native woodland plant, Anemonella thalictroides, has sprung back unexpectedly in two widely separate spots in the garden, among hellebores in one case and primulas in the other. The original specimen fell into a decline for a few years and finally expired from too much sun exposure after losing the shade of a big old Japanese tree lilac that was devastated by the Great Ice Storm of 1998.

Every year, in fact, has its share of mysterious moving plants. I remember going into the garden one morning some years back and finding, for the first time, two big, ground-hugging pink flowers of the magnificent Bitter-root, Lewisia rediviva. By that time, I had pretty well despaired of giving this species the dry, summer baking it requires. It comes reasonably easily from seed, but seedlings that I’d put in had never before survived for a second summer. Deepening the mystery, the flowering plants were in a different part of the rock garden from my earlier efforts at growing this elusive species.

The chaos of changing gardens can also lead to pleasant surprises. Two unidentified but promising looking seedlings that I planted out soon after moving to our current Alta Vista garden grew very slowly over several years before stepping into the foreground with a show of very lovely flowers. The first turned out to be a spring gentian of the Gentiana acaulis group with flowers of the richest royal purple. (I’ve tentatively identified it as a G. clusiana, a member of the group that my records show was sown several years before the move.) The other was an even happier surprise, proving to be a luminous white-flowered form of the notoriously hard-to-grow Japanese woodland poppy, Glaucidium palmatum.

Finally there are the late fall surprises when little rock garden shrubs call out for attention with brilliant flashes of colour. There’s a deciduous Asian Vaccinium whose specific name I’ve long forgotten that after eight years has never flowered, borne fruit or grown more than a sparsely branched 10cm, and, in fact, wouldn’t be noticed at all except for its brilliant explosion of autumn reds, oranges and yellows. The same can be said for even tinier sorbus and holly species that are all but invisible until their leaves change.

Mostly, though, fall brings a sense of anticipation at what surprises the next growing season might hold in store.